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Cicero's case against Caesar

It is of course impossible to reconcile Cicero's public utterances, as contained in the three speeches of this period,1 with the private expressions of feeling of which a selection has been here indicated. Nor is it possible to feel full sympathy with a man thus playing a double part. But it is not difficult to understand and partly condone it. He might plead that he yielded to force majeure: that his exile or death could not benefit his country; whereas by conforming to the inevitable he might hope to benefit his friends, to secure their restoration to civil rights and property, and to raise his voice now and again on the side of equity and mercy. Nor would he have been really safer anywhere else than in Italy. The arm of the Dictator was a long one and would reach to Rhodes almost as easily as to Tusculum. Philosophers had generally taught that the wise man was justified in submitting to superior force, and in living his life under whatever form of government. Again and again he is at pains to justify at great length both his having originally engaged in the war and his having refused to continue it after Pharsalia. The eventual victory of either side was sure to be calamitous to the state, he thinks, and it was better to bear the ills they had than fly to others the extent of which they could not measure.2 It may perhaps be right to attempt to estimate briefly the justice of the grievance against Caesar which led a man like Cicero, generally generous, wise, and high-minded, to regard the stupid crime of the Ides of March with such exulting approval, as the righteous punishment of tyranny and treason to the state.

It is useless to argue on general principles as to the blunder as well as the crime involved in an assassination. We must try to get at Cicero's point of view. Caesar had destroyed the Constitution. The general line nowadays adopted in defending him for this is something of this sort: The constitution had become a sham. The assemblies of the people were not assemblies of the people, but of the City proletariat, corrupt, ignorant, and disorderly. The real power was in the hands of a clique. A few families monopolized office: enriched themselves at the expense of the provinces: controlled the senate and manipulated the comitia. It was to free the state from this oppressive oligarchy that Caesar stepped into the place of the Gracchi, of Saturninus, of Marius, and perhaps of Catiline, and determined that a sham, which had become the means of endless oppression, injustice, and rapacity, should cease. However much may be said for this view of the case—and each point in it admits and indeed requires very large modification—it was not the light in which it appeared in Cicero's eyes. No one was more conscious than he of the need of reform. He had the greatest contempt for the idle "fish-breeding" nobles, the most hearty indignation for the oppressors and plunderers of the provinces. But reform with him did not mean destruction. The constitution—the res publica—under which he, "a new man," had risen from a moderate position to the highest rank; under which the power of Rome had been extended over the orbis terrarum; the Republic consecrated by so many memories, adorned by so many noble names, such heroic actions, such signal reverses, and such brilliant successes — to annihilate that was worse than parricide. Every feature in the constitution had its charm for Cicero—the complexity of its legal code, the conflicting powers of its magistrates, the curious mixture of religion and imposture known as the science of augury, the traditional ceremonies in the working of the comitia—he had studied them all, and was prepared substantially to defend them all. To sweep them all away, or rather to reduce them all to mere unmeaning forms by the personal supremacy of a king or a dictator—whose powers were only known to the constitution under strict limit of time—was to him the worst of crimes. Now Caesar had not only beaten Cicero's party in the field—that might have been forgiven: he had not only accepted a dictatorship which had no precedent except the ill-omened one of Sulla—that perhaps might have been endured as a temporary suspension of the magisterial authority. He had struck at the very root of the constitution—the right of the people to elect magistrates, and the traditional (though not legal) right of the senate to control them. Candidates were indeed still elected, but they were those formally recommended by himself. Laws were still passed, but a crowd of his veterans—whose property depended on his word—could and did carry every measure which he wished. The senate still voted the equipment of the provincial governors, but these governors were no longer assigned by the senate or by the sortitio over which the senate presided, but were directly nominated by Caesar and confirmed by a lex, which was passed as a matter of course. The excellence of Caesar's laws—which he elsewhere acknowledges3—did not compensate for the unconstitutional manner in which they were carried.


1 Pro Ligario, pro Marcello, pro Deiotaro.

2 See especially pp.70, 78-80, 87, 92, 95, 115, 121.

3 See 2 Phil. § 109.

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